Have you been to Thailand’s forgotten backyard?
FANS OF THAILAND have probably been to the more heavily promoted, commercialized Thai destinations such as Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Krabi, Hatyai, and the many Kohs.
But the Southeast Asian country actually has more tricks up its sleeve that you’d expect. If you knew where to look, of course.
Located in the northeast of Thailand is Isan, the country’s largest region (it’s half the size of Germany) but also it’s forgotten backyard.
Bordered by Cambodia to the southeast and the Mekong River along the border with Laos to the north and east, Isan is actually more Lao than Thai.
In fact, many of the locals speak a Lao dialect and the Lao culture can even be found in the Isan cuisine. There are significant Vietnamese populations in cities like Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Kaen, and Sakon Nakhon.
Isan is isolated and lacks the pristine white beaches and warm azure waters that Thailand’s many Kohs offer, therefore it’s often written off as boring or dull. However, it’s underdevelopment is a blessing in disguise.
It has the rolling Phetchabun Mountains as its backdrop, the vast churning Mekong river, authentic traditional experiences the bustling Thai capital doesn’t quite have, and a colorful lifestyle that’s worth exploring.
It’s often called the “real Thailand” as Isan is what remains of the Thailand of the old, with its slow-paced communities, little towns, sprawling farmlands, and rice fields.
Off the beaten path attractions are aplenty too, such as the Phu Phra Bat historical park, the prehistoric settlement at the Ban Chiang archaeological site, and a plethora of temples and monasteries founded by renowned monks.
Have a penchant for taking walk on the wild side? Isan boasts incredible national parks teeming with wildlife where you can go stretch your legs.
So don’t forget to make a pitstop at Khao Yai National Park, Pha Taem National Park, or Tat Ton National Park where you can cool off at one of its many waterfalls.
And if you prefer to be one with nature, kick back and enjoy the warm hospitality of That Phanom, Sangkhom, or Kong Chiam along the Mekong river bank. There’s no shortage of affordable hotels, guesthouses, or homestays.
Alternatively, you could enjoy a boat ride out to the middle of Talay Bua Daeng, otherwise known as the Red Lotus Sea, which is really a lake that’s home to millions of pink and crimson lotuses.
A spectacular sight to behold, the blooms generally start in late October and lasts to the end of February – just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The riverside provincial towns of Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, and Mukdahan are also popular thanks to their proximity to Laos. You can even cross the river for a day trip in Laos if you’d like.
If quiet towns are not your thing or if you’re craving for a little bit more action, then visit one of Isan’s four cities: Ubon Ratchathani, Si Sa Ket, Yasothon, or Amnat Charoen. These destinations are the most visited, clocking 5.5 million tourists in 2017, mostly Thais (96.5 percent).
Ubon Ratchathani is known for its strong Buddhist tradition, Si Sa Ket is home to many Khmer ruins, Yasothon is a foodie haven with lots of cheap eats, and Amnat Charoen is famed for its excellent handicrafts, particularly silk.
Moving forward, Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports are looking to develop Ubon Ratchathani as a Buddhist tourism center and tourism hub. Si Sa Kaet will be developed as a sports tourism city, Yasothon as a cultural tourism city, and Amnat Chareon as a religious tourism city.
So if you’re looking to go get a slice of Isan before swarms of tourists do, now would be a good time to start making plans.
Isan is reachable via bus (six hours and 27 minutes) or train (seven hours and 40 minutes), or you can take a flight (one hour and five minutes) to Ubon Ratchathani International Airport from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.